Cat Nipped

batmancatwomanAt night, Gotham City belongs to Batman. But it doesn’t belong to him alone. Somewhere in the shadows lurks a stray cat yowling in fury and endless desire.

That yowling cat is Catwoman and she is an iconic and wonderful creation. As a supporting character, she compliments Batman perfectly (“The flip side to the same coin,” writes Paul Kupperberg). Yet, when given the opportunity, she can also step into the spotlight on her own terms.

The Catwoman/Batman dynamic is unique in the world of superhero comic books. Selina Kyle is a thief and an outlaw, and when she slips into her catsuit she’s the most dangerous of all urban predators. More than anyone else in the Bat’s rogues’ gallery, Catwoman makes Batman more human, and thus more interesting. Things get complicated on so many levels when these two creatures of the night bump into each other. It’s too bad this chunky collection of short stories doesn’t fulfill its war-of-the-sexes potential.

There’s some adventure and frisky fun here, but the assembled authors never seem to get a firm handle on the dynamic duo. In one story, for example, Batman foils Catwoman’s string of thievery with uncanny regularity. “You’re predictable,” he tells her at the scene of each crime. Yet in a follow-up story, Catwoman has no problem outwitting Batman at every turn. “Cats aren’t predictable,” he laments. Well, which is it? Is Selina Kyle trapped by her well-known cat obsession, or is she forever inscrutable?

And Batman doesn’t fare much better. The guy’s been around for 80 years and writers are still trying to figure him out. In some of these stories he’s the master detective, in others, he’s the Dark Knight, and in a few he’s Adam West. One writer even tries to compare him to saxophonist Archie Shepp. The comparison doesn’t stick, however. Batman may dispense justice like a raging Shepp solo, but he’s too white and privileged to carry the weight of the jazzman’s Afrocentric black power politics.

Together or apart, Batman and Catwoman have proven to be a resilient and multi-faceted pair. Looking back, I actually have a tremendous fondness for some of the various interpretations, reboots and costume changes each character has suffered throughout the years. But in this case, I blame the editor and his lack of editorial guidance for the book’s haphazardness. And what’s more, I can’t help but feel an opportunity has been missed. Catwoman is a character who has found success in comic books, TV shows, movies and Halloween parties. But in prose she’s been totally disappointing. Someday someone will get it right. I hope.

[The Further Adventures of Batman, Vol. 3: Featuring Catwoman / Edited by Martin H. Greenberg / First Printing: March 1993 / ISBN: 9780553560695]

Red Hot and Green

SheHulkDiariesIn my opinion, She-Hulk is the best superhero name Stan Lee ever thought up. The hyphenated personal pronoun succeeds at being funny and dumb and smart and provocative all at the same time. She-Hulk could easily be a monster from a 1950s movie or the topic of a women’s studies class. Take your pick.

She-Hulk is a six-foot-seven, 680-pound jade-green party animal. And as her name implies, she’s hell on wheels and an indefatigable physical presence. But in Marta Acosta’s novel from 2013 she isn’t nearly as interesting as her host, Jennifer Walters, a woman who is described as a beautiful disaster—all luminous eyes and existential grief. Walters is, according to her spunky best friend, “a perplexing blend of kick-ass chick and honor-roll nerd.” The She-Hulk Diaries could easily have been called The Jennifer Walters Diaries instead.

But no worries; Even with “She-Hulk” in the title, Walters establishes herself as the real hero of the book. Her quest to find a good job, secure an affordable apartment in Manhattan and hook up with an awesome boyfriend represents her version of a hero’s journey.

Naturally, there are plenty of obstacles in Walters’ way. She must grapple with duplicitous coworkers, limited rental options and an ex-lover who insists on writing embarrassing songs about their weekend tryst (sample lyric: “I’ll crawl from the primordial sludge for you. I’ll give up my gills and prehensile appendage for you”). Dr. Doom even shows up to make things more complicated. It’s sort of like Sex and the City (or maybe Breakfast at Tiffany’s) with a little superhero action on the side. There’s a lot of navel-gazing in The She-Hulk Diaries, but it’s mostly well written and relentlessly jokey. Added bonus for those who care: the sex talk is surprisingly frank.

With all the real world drama surrounding Walters, there’s not much for She-Hulk to do. We are told that “Shulky” is a righteous superbabe and a sex object for millions of teenage boys, but the author keeps her on the sidelines most of the time.

Regardless of her costarring status, She-Hulk succeeds in retaining her brutish charm wherever she goes. She is, I admit, pretty good with the zippy one-liners. “I’d rather be tasty than tasteful,” she brags at one point. And later, when her boobs pop out of her outfit, she says, “It pays to advertise!”

Even when she’s serious (which is not very often), She-Hulk is able to express herself with surprising aplomb. For example, every time she visits the Avengers Mansion she feels the sting of sexism (especially from ex-boyfriend Tony Stark). She may be red hot and green, but she’s not happy about being marginalized because of her sex. “Male is not the default gender for superhero,” she huffs. The Sensational She-Hulk deserves a little more respect.

[The She-Hulk Diaries / By Marta Acosta / First Printing: June 2013 / ISBN: 9781401311018]

Loki the Enchantress

LOKIThere’s no timestamp on Mackenzi Lee’s latest novel. Readers aren’t told how old Loki and Thor are. All we know is that All-father Odin has yet to name an heir to the Asgardian throne.

Later, when Loki visits London, the details are somewhat vague as well. When exactly does Lee’s novel take place? Does it transpire during the early days of the Industrial Revolution? Or is it set in a bleak nineteenth century Dickensian milieu?

Even Loki is confused by the squishy timeline. On Asgard he’s a young prince and an artful dodger. But on Midgard he’s already the Lord of Darkness and Mischief and Chaos and Everything Evil.

Loki doesn’t know it at the time, but humans on Earth are keenly aware of the mighty Aesir. Stories of Odin and Frigga and the Twilight of the Gods are a big part of popular culture.

As it turns out, these myths from the past are also inextricably tied to Asgard’s future. Like it or not, Loki never gets to be the hero. It is his brother Thor who eventually ascends to the throne. “My story has already been written,” he cries in frustration. “It’s been told and retold. Humans know everything about me.”

Which begs the question: If Loki can’t be the hero, what else is left? Lots of things, apparently. He can be the witch, the trickster, the schemer, the self-serving God of Chaos. He can prove the mythology books right, that he was rotten from the start. Says the author: “He would serve no man but himself, no heart but his own. That would be his choice.”

Loki’s partner in crime is Amora, known to comic book readers as the Enchantress. In possession of five highly coveted Norn Stones, the pair hatch a plot to storm Asgard with an army of human zombies. For some reason, this seems like a totally reasonable thing to do.

As a couple, Amora and Loki are two sides of the same coin. They’re both dissatisfied with Asgard’s rigid caste system. Amora is a powerful sorceress who resents living in the shadow of her mentor Karnilla, the Queen of Norns. “I do not want to be controlled,” she says. “I am powerful, so let me be powerful!”

Likewise, Loki considers himself cleverer, sharper and quicker than everyone else in Odin’s court. He knows, however, that he’ll never win his father’s favor. Secretly he wishes for a hammer just like the one his brother wields. “I want to break something,” he says.

Good or bad, hero or villain, Loki and Amora are ultimately undone by social expectations. Like Esther Greenwood (look it up), they can’t break out of the bell jar. “There are some things that cannot be taught,” says Odin, “and one is how to change our hearts. Our true selves always show themselves in the end.”

[Loki: Where Mischief Lies / By Mackenzi Lee / First Printing: September 2019 / ISBN: 9781368022262]

Witchy Woman

witchbladeWitchblade was certainly a big part of the “bad girl” movement in comic books during the 90s. And author John DeChancie doesn’t back away from the sexy witch’s infamous eye-popping transformation in his prose adaptation from 2002.

She was, he wrote, a paradox of dress and undress. “Her metamorphosis produced a filigree of delicate metal work of swirls and arabesques crawling up her body and covering her full breasts and neither portions but leaving little else unexposed. She was nude and yet somehow completely covered.”

Even without the Witchblade gauntlet, Sara “Pez” Pezzini was an eyeful. She dressed like a tomboy, said the author, but she always looked good. “Her jeans were tight and the T-shirt under her jacket was inevitably undersized, allowing her feminine lineaments to come through nicely. She was tall, thin, well proportioned, and had a face that could launch several navies. Legs up to the neck. Oh, those legs! And there were other parts of her body that shaped up just as well.”

Comic books have always been slightly disreputable, and Witchblade along with similar titles such as Vampirella and Lady Death unquestionably took advantage of the media’s lowbrow reputation. This is not a criticism from me btw. Over the years, the character has become iconic and (dare I say it) beloved around the world. She appeared on television in 2001 and even made the transition to anime in 2006.

Witchblade: Talons was a tie-in novel written specifically to supplement the TV series, but DeChancie doesn’t let himself get derailed by continuity minutia. Detective Pezzini wore her Witchblade gauntlet, she seemed comfortable with it and characters (old and new) coexisted without a hitch. There’s no origin story to speak of, but the supernatural tenor of the comic book series was preserved.

Pezzini finds herself in a sticky situation involving a “magical” supercomputer, a werewolf, a “mahjong dragon,” a supernatural assassin, a Romanian crime boss and a bunch of religious zealots from an alternative dimension. Vlad Tepys (the Impaler himself) even shows up for some decapitating fun.

The whole thing is silly and beyond criticism. True believers will be happy to discover that Witchblade retains her bad girl charm in prose format (Pezzini even briefly considers launching a personal website with nude pictures of herself). The details of her ongoing story, however, are rendered inconsequential. But that’s okay. Nobody ever bought a Witchblade comic for the story.

[Witchblade: Talons / By John DeChancie / First Printing: January 2002 / ISBN: 9780743435017]

Kaiju Canon

opreddragon-2It’s 1964 and Earth is heading toward a large-scale daikaiju extinction event in author Ryan George Collins’s enjoyable first novel. Dinosaurs, reptiles (not dinosaurs), sea monsters and insects have all united to “enact some Old Testament wrath” on mankind.

These “large strange beasts” have been around since the beginning of time and they most likely will be here at the end of it. And guess what? They don’t particularly like the fact that they no longer rule the world. Now operating under a loose confederacy, they’re eager to wipe humanity off the map. As it turns out, resistance to change isn’t a trait exclusive to men. Monsters don’t like it either.

When these giant creatures shamble toward Japan or Chile (!), the first responders are a highly specialized covert action team. Operation Red Dragon is an international paramilitary unit that was forged during WWII and tasked with keeping kaiju activity under wraps.

On the agency’s payroll are two genetically engineered super soldiers: Gen. Ishiro Tsujimori, who is able to conduct, generate and unleash electrical energy, and Special Agent X, the world’s only human cyborg. Also available for duty is C.I.G.O.R. (not cigar), a 26-feet-tall cybernetically integrated giant ornithology robot thingy, and a human yokai named Chakra. They’re the monsters protecting mankind from the monsters who want to destroy it.

So far, so good. Operation Red Dragon is the first volume of a planned Daikaiju Wars series, and it dutifully introduces a riot of monsters and superheroes and establishes the alliances that will propel upcoming sequels, Even though it’s a thin book, there’s plenty of retro tokusatsu action to keep readers (like me) happy.

Be forewarned, however. There’s a smattering of religious jibber jabber sprinkled throughout this book. Certainly many writers have used Biblical allegory to magnify their monster narratives over the years. But author Collins needs to be careful. His writing isn’t exactly subtle. “Maybe some humility before God is what mankind needs,” he says bluntly at one point. For goodness sakes, he even anoints a prophet by the end of the book. Hopefully Collins will steer clear of turning his Daikaiju War into a Daikaiju Holy War.

[Operation Red Dragon / By Ryan George Collins / First Printing: April 2018 / ISBN: 9781925711790]